SNL: Chris Rock Monologue (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in November 2014.

In the past year, “SNL” was widely criticized for its lack of diversity, hired a new black cast member following that public pressure, debuted its first black Weekend Update cast member, and from the writer’s room brought on another black cast member.  So an episode hosted by Chris Rock seemed poised to be the most head-on examination of race on “SNL” in years, or even decades.  While that element was present, it was not really any more so than it has been in the past couple of years.  Overall, in fact, this edition ended up like most episodes of the past couple of years: consisting of mostly new material that was mostly more interesting than fully successful and at its best when it got weird.  Let’s take a closer look at each of the sketches.

The Kelly File – There was no particular need for “SNL” to parody this particular Fox News talk show to cover the Kaci Hickox Ebola story.  This sketch did not break apart the form of “The Kelly File,” nor did Cecily Strong offer that strong of an impression.  Thus, the whole thing was rather formless.  Bobby Moynihan continued to play Chris Christie as loud and obnoxious, which is fine, while Kate McKinnon played Kaci Hickox as a typical Kate McKinnon character who won’t take any guff from someone like Chris Christie, which is also fine.  But ultimately, this sketch didn’t really say anything. C

Chris Rock’s Monologue – It has been a while since Chris Rock has seemed enthusiastic about the edgy comedy that made him famous, so this was a refreshing appearance.  The bit at the end about avoiding charity was a tad too selfish (though still funny) for the more humanist landscape of 21st century comedy, but everything else was classic Rock, from the energetic illustration of the cruelty of an attack at a marathon to the takedowns of the arrogance of the Freedom Tower and the excesses of Jesus Birthday Season. B+

How 2 Dance with Janelle – Dad overprotective towards his daughter, daughter clueless about her burgeoning sexuality, Dad completely flummoxed by technology – come on, “SNL,” we’ve seen all this before.  If you’re going to make it work, you’ve got to mix it up a little.  Since this sketch hewed so closely to the formula, it relied on the strength of the performances, which were only sporadically amusing.  Sasheer did not offer anything special, though her dancing was reminiscent of when she played Rihanna in last season’s BET Before They Were Stars sketch.  Chris felt stilted and unnatural in the dad role, though his yelling, “Hey! No fapping!” at the computer screen was memorable.  Kyle at least fit quite naturally as the nervous friend with a crush, with his drenched pits serving as a nice subtle sight gag. C-

GoProbe for Colonoscopy – Taran Killam, Kyle Mooney, and Beck Bennett have the perfect faces for ironic enthusiasm, so casting them in this fake commercial made the most out of a rather limited premise.  Kyle especially continued to prove himself a chameleon, very naturally slipping into the role of a fortysomething.  In general, this bit took strong advantage of the inherent horror comedy of the confluence of technology and biology, particularly with the footage of Grandpa’s old-timey colonoscopy. B

How’s He Doing? – It was only appropriate that “SNL” would revisit “How’s He Doing?” with a record number of black cast members and one of the most famous black alumni hosting.  This is a sketch with a fairly set formula at this point, but there continued to be enough room for variability within that framework.  Overall, “How’s He Doing?” works because of its mix of hypothetical concerns about Obama both innocuous (bringing back the Jheri curl) and serious (allowing Sasha and Malia to talk back to him because they want to stay up late and watch “Scandal”). B

Prince – “Clouds”/”Plectrum Electrum”/“Marz”/“Anotherlove” – Was Chris Rock right to declare that we were “so lucky tonight” to see Prince?  Well, the Purple One sure knows how to be in control of the staging, sound, and rhythm of his performances much more so than about ninety percent of “SNL” music acts.  He kind of had to be to make an eight-minute jam session work.  The face with the third eye on the drum set and Prince’s three-lensed glasses were appropriately fantastical nods to the 3RDEYEGIRL backing band.  And Prince’s spin-and-bow was the perfect cap for an epic performance. A-

Weekend Update – Michael continued to grow more comfortable in the anchor role, while Colin let the slightest amount of personality come through, in rather weird fashion.  Michael’s bit about how Pope Francis always sounds like he just got high for the first time was another observational routine from him, but once again, he could have benefited from breaking into a longer rant.  But there need be no qualifiers to his improvising “Prince, ladies and gentlemen!” after bungling the Tim Cook joke.  Colin apparently admitted that he is a virgin, though his robot voice makes it hard to tell how serious he was, but somehow that lifeless tone made a rather simple joke work. Michael and Colin’s Grade: B
Weekend Update: Pete Davidson –In his first few appearances, Pete Davidson has displayed a knack for sounding like he is going to be stereotypically ignorant but ultimately coming off as open-minded (perhaps a bit too much) by couching his views in his own personal experiences.  So he is not just a young punk who doesn’t want to wear a condom – he’s a young kid with a latex allergy who now finds himself in the position to question the price of sheepskin. B
Weekend Update: Katt Williams and Suge Knight – Katt Williams continued to be an inexplicable impression insofar as Jay Pharoah gets so specific in aping a comedian who is likely unrecognizable to the majority of the “SNL” audience.  But this segment was worthwhile for seeing the normally bug-eyed Kenan Thompson toning it down a bit, forced to go slow as the stoned out of his mind Suge Knight.  Somehow he managed to keep a straight face while talking about “doing a little illegal beagle, private plane, all in the shower hiding behind the Eskimo.” B-

Shark Tank – In an episode that appeared to be built to tackle the controversial racial issues of today, the touchiest material instead ended up bein about the Middle East.  It has been a while since the studio audience responded in such a way as they did here as if to say, “This might be dangerous.”  Kyle Mooney and Chris Rock were appropriately committed to their roles as the ISIS leaders; they avoided cartoonishness, but instead were humans who happened to be fundamentalist and also happened to be in a setting that made no sense.  This was a promising idea, but it struggled to settle into a tone that could be sustainted.  The sharks seemed to be seriously considering investing in a terrorist organization, but it turned out that the whole time there was a plan to bring in the authorities – perhaps the joke was that the sharks are hard to read.  Ultimately, this sketch proved fascinating but impossible to completely work. B+

Swiftamine – You know, it’s interesting, because anecdotally, there might be just as many people who are strongly turned off by “Shake It Off” as there are those unwittingly won over by it.  The biggest laughs of this fake commercial, though, came from the weird accoutrements, like Aidy Bryant’s slowed-down voice in the club and the focus on how Taylor Swift is not just one of the biggest stars in music but also kind of weird in ways that her fame tends to obscure, like how she always seems to be wearing a 1950s bathing suit. B

Anniversary – Everything about this sketch, save for its Ebola and Uber references, felt like a throwback, from its blunt gender politics of marriage to its lack of any clear premise to its easy resolution of its seemingly intractable conflict.  It was fascinating but too inexplicable to really be funny.  Also contributing to the bizarre vibe was that weird moment when Leslie Jones appeared to lose track of the cue cards. C+

Bank Robbery – At first this seemed a little too baroque for the generally subtle Good Neighbor crew, but then it became clear what the premise was: the lines that movie robbers use as a prelude for abusing their hostages instead being applied to much friendlier interpretations.  Thus, teaching a little kid a lesson meant dressing up in historical costumes, “what a girl like you needs” was a brooch pin, and shouting “Surprise!” indicated the arrival of birthday cake.  Thus, Good Neighbor once again succeeded at creating a slightly off alternate reality. B+

Women in the Workplace (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – “SNL” has lately been criticized for avoiding the touchiest topics of today’s society or being too soft when it does take on the tough issues, but its best bet has been to take these topics to left field by dressing them up in loud sweaters and funny voices.  Thus, the matters of gender and diversity in the workplace became the topic for an incredibly unnaturally acted sensitivity training video that mainly existed for the entertainment of the sophisticates played by Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon.  This is how controversial topics can be confronted: by dressing them up in the inexplicable. A-

Some Bullet Points:
-“These Toyotas are practically free at last, free at last!”
-“We had a horrible Jesus’s birthday this year.  Hopefully business will pick up by his crucifixion.”
-“There’s only one thing holding me back, and that’s everything you stand for.”
-“Because you have to tinkle, or worse.”
-“I did twice.  So I have, more than once.”
-“I’m going to my office to listen to Sade and try to forget you.”